Tuesday, 9 June 2009

On the 2009 European election results

Another European election, another disappointment for the Liberal Democrats.

The party has the same number of MEPs as before. But our share of the vote was slightly down from 2004.

Let’s start with a bit of context. European elections are always shark-infested waters for the Lib Dems. Our vote in these contests is usually 5 to 7 points below where we are in the national polls. In the Euro-elections of June 2004, the Lib Dems gained just under 15 per cent of the vote. At the time, Populus had us on 22 per cent nationally. Last Thursday, we gained 13.7 per cent of the Euro-vote. The UKPR polling average puts the national Lib Dem vote at 19 per cent. As John Curtice acknowledges in today’s Independent, the party’s “relative Europhilia” does not go down well with most people who vote in European elections.

All elections are different and this one was really different. During the campaign, most talk about “Europe” got blown away by the parliamentary expenses scandal and general public fury with established politicians. Labour was, and is, in deep guano. The Tories have had big problems over parliamentary expenses too. This should have been a great opportunity for the Lib Dems.

But angry voters were more likely to stay at home or vote BNP or Green than turn to the Lib Dems – or any of the other parties, including UKIP. On Thursday, Labour’s support from all those qualified to vote (as opposed to those who voted) was down by 3.2 per cent. The Tories were down too, by 0.6 per cent. UKIP’s vote was also down, by 0.5 per cent. But so were the Lib Dems, by just under 1 per cent. The BNP vote was up (very slightly) and so was the Greens’, by 0.6 per cent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people not voting was up by 3.7 points.

There are, I believe, three main reasons why the party has been left feeling disappointed. The first concerns the “anti-politician” mood. In the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandals, the Lib Dems moved to respond to the public’s anger. On fixing politics, we are, after all, on much stronger ground than the others. With his “100 days” package, Nick Clegg set a robust, ambitious programme for reform. During the campaign, I was quite positive about Nick’s Change Politics for Good broadcast. [For my blog on this, click here]

In retrospect, the party may have been too slow to pick up on this theme. The figures above suggest that although we may (sometimes) see ourselves as political insurgents but the voters perceive us as being part of the establishment. And I fear that one of my “rules of politics” may have been borne out. When politicians try to sell voters lists of policies, and don’t tell stories, disappointment is just around the corner. The closer the list is to polling day, the worse the effect.

Second, the party’s European song – drowned out as it was – was a bit off-key. The Lib Dems were more positive on Europe than for some years – “stronger together, poorer apart” – and this brought endorsements from The Observer and The Independent. Yet the party too often sounded as if it was trying to sell to voters the concept of “working together in Europe”, as opposed to setting out what difference Lib Dems would make, the specific benefits we would provide. . The manifesto sketched out our views on European economic recovery, mentioned our “green road out of recession” (though the European context was not fully developed) and cited our record on standing up for consumers. But the campaign offered few specifics and told few stories. [Click here] Voters did not receive a clear idea of what they would “get” in “return” for “buying” more Lib Dem MEPs

The third, over-arching reason is to do with the party’s campaigning culture. 2009 was an angry election, with UKIP and the BNP spinning simpler, more emotive stories. People could afford to lash out and a lot of them did. Two in five voters were cast for parties other than Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. The recent evidence, for example in Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain, shows that voters’ decisions are driven more by emotions and values than policies and the facts and figures behind them. Yet, as so often happens, the Lib Dems tried to appeal almost entirely to peoples’ brains, their sense of reason.

So, where to next? The answer is not for the Lib Dems to ditch the entire Euro-manifesto and hurriedly throw together a patchwork quilt of “popular” European policies. None of this would be credible. Even if we can’t write the manifesto or the strategy for the next European election now, we can be sure that the main opposition party will invite people to cast a protest vote. Likewise, the minor parties will again appeal to public anger and disillusionment. So the party should base our next Euro campaign on how, in specific terms, voters will benefit from having more Lib Dem MEPs.

And let’s get behind Nick’s “take back power” campaign. It’s only just started, after all (!). The circumstances of the Euro elections won’t repeat themselves anytime soon. Above all, we need to tell people stories about the changes we offer, the bottom lines and not the process; telling stories that speak to hearts as well as heads.

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